By SAMS Ltd, a health & safety consultancy and training company based in Kent, England.
Ask who in your business is most responsible for fire safety, and you’ll find fingers pointing in a dozen directions. Even if you have a dedicated fire safety professional, you may find that the burden of responsibility falls on the unwitting Facilities Manager. You may not have had any hand in planning or construction, yet the pressure is on you to ensure total compliance and safety – and that pressure has only ratcheted up since the Grenfell disaster.
Your business should already have a pretty comprehensive fire safety plan, and have taken some routine steps to implement it. However, compliance is not always comprehensive readiness, and most businesses could stand to do more to hone their approach. Here are five simple tips for FMs to help keep abreast of fire safety developments, and best prepare for incidents.
- Keep policies updated
In the UK, the The Regulatory Reform (2005) Fire Order dictates that the person who has control of the premises is the ‘responsible person’ when it comes to fire safety law. This can be the owner, but is most often interpreted as the Facilities Manager. To confuse things further, some businesses delegate fire safety and other issues of workplace safety to an assigned safety officer or expert. Whatever your circumstances, the ambiguity of the law means that FMs need to take charge, and ensure that their fire safety policies leave them well covered in the event of a fire. If they’re good enough, you worries can be kept to a minimum.
The first and simplest means to ensure this is to keep your fire policy up-to-date. You may have scheduled risk assessments, but there are many circumstances in which these may need to be expedited. Consider for instance a scenario in which you make modifications to the layout of an office, or install new equipment. Anything which is a potential fire risk, or could compromise people’s ability to get out of the building in an emergency, should be considered as part of fire policy. So too should the needs of individual employees – if your business hires an individual who is disabled, for instance, their ability to navigate the building should be carefully considered.
- Keep employees in the loop
Assessing your building’s floor plans and ensuring that things stay tidy, and hazards are kept to a minimum is one step. But some of this comes down to the traditional, touchy-feely side of facilities management.
Talk to employees and gauge how they would feel in the event of an emergency; whether they feel prepared, and whether they are worried about any hazards. People react in unusual ways in emergencies, and seemingly innocuous issues can turn into serious impediments if they aren’t identified and dealt with. Consultation is an important part of any overarching policy, but particularly so when people’s lives are potentially on the line.
As well as liaising with employees to flag up risks, fire policy should be clearly communicated, too. It may only be mandatory to pin up a notice in the office with the fire protocols, but be honest with yourself: is this the best you can do? Will people actually read this and take it in; or would regular meetings, lectures or demonstrations drill the message home more effectively? Like airline safety announcements, the risk of anything happening is low, but you’ll be happy to have put up with them if something does go wrong.
- Assess fire door usage
Fire doors are an essential mechanism for controlling the spread of a serious fire. They are designed to withstand fire damage for an average of 20-60 minutes, as well as limiting the amount of smoke that can pass through. Used in strategic points around a building, a reliance on fire doors allows building planners to earmark safe routes for escape, and buys time for both occupants and emergency services to deal with a fire.
What’s remarkable then is how little awareness there is of fire doors, and the crucial role that they play. HYPERLINK “http://www.bfmmagazine.co.uk/national-survey-shows-worryingly-low-awareness-of-fire-door-safety/” \h A recent survey indicates that a quarter of people do not realise that fire doors must be shut at all times, while nearly half of all respondents have seen a fire door propped open. It should go without saying that a fire door which is open (or indeed locked) at the time of a fire not only serves no purpose – it actively endangers a building’s occupants.
While extinguishers and equipment are regularly checked for safety compliance, the seeming permanence of fire doors may lead to their exclusion from risk assessments. Ensuring that fire doors are not only well maintained and effective, but also properly used, is key. Short of alarming all fire doors, building occupants should be made aware of the risks of leaving fire doors open, and potentially penalised for doing so.
- Optimise your maintenance procedures
Facilities Managers often find themselves tied up with admin when they’d rather be doing ‘boots on the ground’ work. Log books are a big part of this, with every call out, issue and bit of maintenance being studiously recorded for future reference. Thankfully, the advent of automated smart buildings and sensor data means that many of these actions can be recorded and assessed by computers, with the FM serving more as a data analyst.
One extremely helpful component of this is the ability to automate maintenance. Instead of manually assessing equipment and machinery at routine intervals, sensors can log usage and any complaints or call outs. This data can then be cross referenced in order to predict potential problems, and automatically schedule or suggest maintenance when it’s most needed.
This kind of predictive behaviour is one of ‘big data’s’ greatest assets, and it has obvious applications for fire safety, helping to avoid equipment malfunctions. It can also help simply by turning equipment off. Smart power management can ensure that equipment like lighting and computers is switched off automatically when a room is empty, reducing a fire risk by overheating, and reducing another factor in ongoing repairs.
- Look to new technologies
Because fire suppression involves so many mechanical systems, it has also been one of the biggest focuses for technological developments. While legacy fire systems tend to stay in place for many years, with maintenance seen as preferable to a complete overhaul, newer options can be far more effective – both in terms of suppressing fires and in monetary savings.
Mist systems for instance are beginning to take over from traditional sprinklers. Because of the larger surface area covered, a fine mist can actually be far more effective in denying a fire the oxygen it needs. It has broader applications than water, too: mist does significantly less damage to property, including electrical appliances, making it ideal for computer-laden offices.
Alarm systems have also been significantly upgraded. Situational alarms can now issue different voice alerts for different parts of a building, guiding occupants to specific exits and meeting points. This is particularly useful for businesses with frequent visitors and contractors, who are unlikely to be familiar with site fire safety policies. With the advent of the IoT and smart buildings becoming more common, safety will become an ever more important part of building design.